In the spring of 2006, about seven months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and a swath of the Gulf coast, Ashton Phelps, publisher of The Times-Picayune, gave this prognosis of his paper’s future to The New York Times: “The $64,000 question for us is this: What is the economy going to look like 18 months, two years from now, when most of the insurance checks have been cashed and the federal relief efforts taper off?”
With the five-year anniversary of the storm approaching, I revisited the T-P, whose heroic efforts in the weeks after Katrina I chronicled for CJR back in November of 2005. The sad answer to Phelps’s $64,000 question, of course, was that the economy proceeded off a cliff, as the nation endured the worst crisis since the Great Depression. But what had that crisis done to The Times-Picayune? How is the paper positioned to cover the disastrous oil spill still spewing off the coast, an emerging police scandal in New Orleans, and a new hurricane season that is predicted to be “extremely active”? I looked forward to catching up with some of the editors and reporters I’d spent time with in the then-deserted city, and getting their thoughts on the current state of affairs.
I quickly realized that many of those folks are no longer there. David Meeks, the editor whose kayak expedition up Interstate 10 I’d detailed, left the paper in 2008 first for The Associated Press and more recently to become an editor in the Tribune Company’s Washington bureau. Mike Perlstein, the veteran criminal justice reporter who was part of the squad hunkered down with Meeks at “Fort Picayune,” braving looters and stifling heat with the help of copious amounts of combat wash and Southern Comfort, had also left, first to teach and later to head the investigative reporting team for a local television station.
Not everyone is gone, of course. Art critic Doug MacCash and editor James O’Byrne, whose bike reconnaissance mission after the storm provided some of the first reports of the coming flood, remain at the paper and are doing well. But there’s no question that, for a variety of reasons, The Times-Picayune has lost a number of longtime staffers in the last few years. According to the paper’s internal figures, the editorial head count has decreased from about 265 before the storm to between 165-170 today. Similarly, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the paper’s non-Sunday circulation has declined from about 260,000 before the storm to just over 157,000 today.
To his credit, editor Jim Amoss doesn’t downplay the butcher’s bill. “I hated to lose some of the people we lost,” Amoss told me in a phone interview. “They took with them important aspects of the paper’s voice, but we remain a remarkably strong and connected paper.” It’s this level of connectedness that Amoss prefers to focus on rather than raw circulation figures. Numbers generated by The Media Audit, an independent media research company, show that, just as before the storm, The Times-Picayune continues to enjoy a remarkable degree of hometown loyalty, with 51 percent of adults in the metro area reading it daily, the highest rate of any large newspaper in the country (The Buffalo News is second with just over 45 percent).
“Our metro area population is about three-quarters of what it used to be and since the storm we’ve had three price increases and eliminated all special discounts,” says Amoss, citing all three as factors leading to circulation declines. He adds that, anecdotally, there seems to be more sharing of individual copies of the paper and that Nola.com, the paper’s popular Web site, is also drawing eyeballs that formerly fell on the print edition.